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Monday, January 30, 2012

Fundraisers help villagers install own mini hydro units



altam Phui Yee
Visiting … the housewives pose at a construction site of a wooden home at Kampung Nyukol. Photos courtesy of SB Lim.
A group of concerned individuals are raising RM40,000 to install mini hydroelectric units to power up two new villages deep in the forests of Ulu Bengoh — a 45-minute drive away from Kuching, Sarawak.
The villagers have to move out of their ancestral homes in Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Bujong/Pain to make way for the RM310 million Bengoh Dam project.
Located at higher grounds, Kampung Nyukol and Kampung Sting will be the new homes, respectively, for 27 Bidayuh families of Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Bujong. They turned down the government’s resettlement offer and some filed a lawsuit to claim their native customary rights (NCR) over the land.
The villagers stood their ground despite the expected impoundment this year. Their ancestral graves are still within the area to be filled by water from the dam.
Villagers from two other affected areas — Kampung Taba Sait and Kampung Semban — have accepted the government’s resettlement offer. But even so, some are beginning to build their own homes while waiting for the promised housing and compensation.
The prime movers of this group are the same people who made the Ulu Bengoh Darom Piin (Ulu Bengoh Under Water) short film which highlighted the plight of the villagers. They include the Malaysian Election Observers Network (MEO-net) coordinator Ong Boon Keong and IT consultant Joachim Leong.
Together with supporters, including a number of housewives, they want to install the mini hydro units in the villages, so that the villagers would have their own source of power.
In the words of Leong, 25, a Sarawakian based in Kuala Lumpur, he wants to “empower” the rural Sarawakians, starting with those in Ulu Bengoh.
The group also wants to see if the mini hydro units will facilitate technical knowledge transfer to the villagers. If so, the group will duplicate the project in other rural areas in Malaysia.
Currently, some of these villages rely on fuels that have to be carried into the forest by foot, or on solar panels that can power up only one light bulb for the night.
The two mini hydro units — one for each village — will be installed at the nearby rivers of Kampung Nyukol and Kampung Sting. They will generate enough power of between five kilowatts and nine kilowatts needed for the 27 homes.
altHopeful Rejoi children … the supply of hydro electric power at their homes will ease their studies.
“It will hopefully benefit their children, who will be able to read when they come back for the weekends or school holidays, from boarding schools. They currently require one gallon of petrol per generator daily for enough light until midnight per household. While not every household requires a generator — they tend to congregate at one house in the evenings — this comes out to around RM 2,000 a year, not to mention the difficulty in bringing in the petrol, cost of the generator and its maintenance,” said Leong.
With a steady supply of sustainable energy, the villagers can also continue with their usual evening communal gatherings at a neighbour’s home.
There have been talks that the Bengoh Dam might be fitted with turbines to generate electricity. In any case, Leong and Ong share the same view that Kampung Rejoi and Kampung Bujong villagers are unlikely recipients of the power, due to the large amount of stored water needed, high cost and low consumption.
Plus, these villagers still have a lawsuit against the government which is still pending.
So far, the group has managed to raise RM20,500, enough to install the first mini hydro unit for Kampung Nyukol. Ong said that they are trying to source for local products and manpower to save on costs. The villagers will be part of the labour with external consultants and an engineer chipping in with technical knowledge.
“We are taking on the bigger challenge of trying to fabricate the turbine — usually the more costly and technically demanding aspect — by studying the existing mini hydro units which are common in Penang. We already have a workshop owner in Sibu, who expressed interest to fabricate a turbine if we come up with a design,” said Ong, who has been banned from entering Sarawak since May last year.
His team had conducted early assessment of rivers suitable for the mini hydro units. They now look forward to a more accurate study when the waters are lower in February.
Among those helping to raise funds for the mini hydro units are Klang Valley based housewives SB Lim and Cynthia Tan, who went into the villages with three others to see the situations for themselves.
One of the villagers told them, in Malay: “Kami sekarang sudah pisah daripada pemerintah. Semua orang kampung yang lain sekarang tengok pada kami. Mereka nak tengok kami akan mundur atau maju. Kami mesti tunjuk pada mereka kami masih boleh maju, walaupun sudah berpisah daripada pemerintah.” (We are cut off from the administration. All other villagers are now looking at us. They want to see whether we will regress or progress. We must show to them that we can still progress, even if we are cut off from the administration.)
altEye-opening trip … Lim (right) and Tan (second from right) with their friends and guide, trekking into the villages of Ulu Bengoh.
The five ladies returned and shared stories from their eye-opening trip to their friends.
“What struck me most were the people. They were very warm, generous, strong and stoic. Their home, land and crops would be taken away from them and they still remain calm… Although we just met, we could talk about many things,” said Lim, who hopes to raise the funds quickly before prices of the items increase.
The 2010 Auditor-General’s Report released last year revealed that the RM310 million Bengoh dam, which was supposed to have been completed in December 2010, still has about 3% of work left and will cost the government RM58 million in overruns. It attributed the delay to poor coordination in land acquisition and resettlement, and noted that the resettlement site chosen by the government was unsuitable because it is a mountainous water catchment area.
The villagers held the same view but were dismissed by the authorities.
(To contribute towards the mini hydro electric units project, email meonet2010@gmail.com for details. For more information, read http://goodtimes.my/index.php/Community/the-voting-mystery-of-bengoh.html or watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbK8c4dSn-Y)

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